My shoulders shake with laughter as I sit in front of my computer, plugging away at my latest project, a video game I’ve been working on for the last six months.
I don’t want to get my hopes up or anything, but I believe it could be the game of the year when we’re finished with it.
“Yes, again!” Her sigh carries through the apartment. “Just tell me what it is!”
“Why didn’t you save it?”
“You know I’m not tech-savvy.”
She’s not wrong there.
Caroline Reed, my best friend since I was fifteen, is decidedly not the tech guru in our duo. I think if it weren’t for me pushing her to always buy the latest versions of phones and computers, she’d still be rocking a flip phone and the world’s thickest laptop.
She’s the artsy one. I’m the buttons and clickies.
She’s the hide-behind-a-book type, and I’d rather spend my Friday nights at the local sports bar.
We make no sense as friends, but here we are, living together in peace. Friends for…what has it been now? Ten, eleven years?
Either way, I can barely remember a time in my life before Caroline came barreling into it with her surprisingly smartass mouth.
“Just tell me the dang Wi-Fi password, Cooper! Or I’m going to call your moms and tell them you’re looking up dirty things on the internet again.”
“I’ll tell them myself.”
“I will beat you with my flip-flop!”
Okay, so maybe it’s not as peaceful as I thought.
“Come on, Coop.” She groans loudly, and I grin because I can imagine her face all scrunched up like it always gets when she’s angry.
“You didn’t ask for it correctly…”
“I NEED YOUR PENIS!”
Doesn’t matter how many times she yells it—which is strangely often—it still makes me laugh like a maniac.
I could change the Wi-Fi network name from Yell I Need Ur Penis 4 Password to something else and make it a little more “family-friendly,” more “mature,” but where’s the fun in that? Working from home all day long gets old quick, and I’ll take my laughs where I can get them.
I push away from my desk and make my way from my bedroom/office into the living room, where I’m not surprised to find Caroline curled up under the massive gray blanket we’ve taken to calling the chinchilla blanket because we swear it’s as soft as the pet she used to have. She acts like it’s freezing in our apartment with just her face poking out of the mound of fabric.
“Give me your phone.” I hold my hand out, towering over her huddled form. “And stop being such a baby. It’s not even that cold in here.”
“You live in Colorado for fuck’s sake and have for several years now. You’ve had plenty of time to acclimate to this weather. Quit acting like you can’t take a bit of chill.”
We originally grew up in Florida, where we were more accustomed to ball-busting heat than ball-shriveling cold, but we’ve lived here in Harristown in the mountains for about seven years now. We’re used to this climate—or at least we should be.
“Or you could, I don’t know, turn the heat up.”
I quirk a brow. “I’m sorry…are you the one paying the electric bill?”
She grumbles under her breath. I can’t fully make it out, but I’m almost certain the word asshole is in there somewhere.
“That’s what I thought.” I wiggle my fingers. “Phone.”
“Just tell me.”
“No, because I’m going to save it into your phone for a change so you’re not bothering me for it tomorrow night, or yelling through our apartment about how much you need my dick when we’re both painfully aware of how thin these walls are. You’re already the talk of the morning mail run.”
“Then change the Wi-Fi name.”
“And ruin the fun for later? No way.”
She darts her hand out and settles the two-generation-old brick into my hand, then quickly wraps the blanket back around her, chattering her teeth to try to make me feel bad.
I am way too cheap to fall for that shit.
I punch in her passcode, then enter the Wi-Fi password, making sure to hit save.
“There. Now you won’t have to ask again for another month until I change it again.”
“I don’t understand why you change the password so often.”
“Because I’m a paranoid computer nerd.”
“You got the nerd part right.”
I hold her phone up, shaking it. “Just for that, I’m keeping this.”
“You are not. Give it back.”
“Come get it from me.”
She wrinkles her nose. “On second thought, keep it.” She pulls her blanket tighter, if that’s even possible. “It’s too cold out there. Now move, you’re blocking my view of The Vampire Diaries.”
I glance behind me to the TV. “Again, Caroline?”
“Yes. They use my name in this show, and fake Caroline and I look alike. I’m required to watch it to support my long-lost twin.”
I distinctly remember when the show first came out and Caroline called me over under the guise of studying when I knew she just wanted someone there to hold on to in case she got scared of the vampires.
In the end, she was more freaked out by the fact that the character who shares her name could easily be her older sister. She switched the TV off immediately and refused to ever watch it…until articles came out about all the shirtless scenes. Putting on a brave face, she overcame her fear of her small-screen doppelgänger.
The damn show has been on repeat since.
“And it has nothing at all to do with the hot vampire douche-bros?”
“Douche-bros?” She narrows her eyes at me. “Don’t act like you hate it. There have been plenty of nights you’ve watched it with me.”
“Only because I’m a good best friend. And because you take the batteries out of the remote.”
The brat always hides the batteries when she wants to watch something she knows I won’t like.
Technically, I could change the channel from an app on my phone. But, shit, those fucked-up vampires and their shitstorm of drama suck you in.
Plus, you know, it’s chock-full of hot chicks, which, if anyone asks, is exactly why I’m tuning in.
“You know, I—” Caroline’s phone vibrates in my hand. I look down at the screen.
“Whoa now,” I say, my interest piqued by what I see. “What’s this we have here? A notification for Dud or Stud.” I peek at her. “When did you get on that app?”
Her baby blue eyes—the ones that have gotten me in more trouble than I care to admit over the years—widen to about twice their usual size, and she shoots her hand back out from the comfort of her blanket cocoon. “None of your beeswax. Give me my phone back.”
Her voice is up two octaves…and my curiosity rises along with it.
“Maybe I’ll just…”
I swipe down, intrigued that my best friend is on a dating app and hasn’t once mentioned it.
“Don’t you dare, Cooper Bennett!”
And I immediately fucking regret it.
MrSexMachine69: Are you sweet, Caroline? Because I can make you ba-ba-ba all night long.
And then there’s a dick.
On my best friend’s phone screen.
It’s a small one, too. And fucking gross. Like “the guy should spend a little more time in the shower scrubbing it” gross.
My lips curl up in revulsion. “Is this the type of shit dudes are sending you on here?”
“What?” She shoves out from her warm haven and rises to her full five-seven height, then snatches her phone from my hand. “What’d he—oh hell. Not this guy again.”
She groans. “Yes. He keeps making different profiles and I keep falling for it like an idiot, but I’d recognize that penis anywhere.” She shoves the screen in my face. “See that mole on his stomach?”
I smack the phone away, glaring at her. “Can you not shove dick pics in my face?”
She shrugs, glancing back down. “You’re lucky. At least he plucked the mole this time. Usually, you can see a few long black hairs sticking out of it.”
“You are way too nonchalant about this.”
“It’s kind of par for the course.” Another shrug. “Dating is weird nowadays.”
“Just because we’ve moved to a more technology-based way of meeting people doesn’t mean you should be subjected to unwanted pictures of rotten peckers.”
“It does look rotten, doesn’t it?” She shudders.
“Why do you keep falling for this crap?”
Her eyes narrow to slits as she looks up at me. “First, lose the judgment-filled tone.”
“Lose the dick pic in my line of sight.”
She shoves it in my face again, and this time I’m quick, plucking her phone from her hand and pocketing it.
“You can get it back when we’re done with this conversation,” I say, crossing my arms over my chest, staring down at her. “You’re not answering my question. How the fuck do you keep falling for the same dude’s shit?”
“What do you mean? It’s all online.”
“It’s not hard to create a new profile. It’s not like the app gods keep good track of that stuff. There are so many people on here pretending to be celebrities. I once got matched with Tom Holland. It, unfortunately, was not him.”
“Why do you say that like you talked to this catfishing dude for a while to determine it wasn’t in fact Tom Holland?”
“Hey, I’ve read my fair share of romance novels—falling in love via a dating app or by accitext is a thing.”
“You know, you text the wrong person on accident and then you fall in love. Accitext.” She shrugs. “It happens.”
“Yeah, in fiction.”
“Fiction sounds really good right about now. It’s a heck of a lot better than standing around listening to you judge me.”
“I’m not judging you. I’m worried about you and the random dicks—actual random dicks—on this dating app you’re on.”
She rolls her eyes. “Please. Don’t start your whole big brother bull hickey again. That’s so high school.”
I don’t bother denying it, but I wouldn’t call fending off numerous tools a big brother move, just a common sense one.
I saved Caroline from many shitty dates and handsy assholes. It’s not that I completely kept her from dating—I’m not her parents, just a concerned friend—but I did do plenty of vetting and never let her forget it.
“You know, I’m surprised you aren’t on the app with you being perpetually single and all. I’m sure you’d match with someone in no time considering…” She gestures toward me. “Well, you know.”
I do know.
And that’s not me being a cocky douche. It’s the truth, and my physique is one I work damn hard for.
I can thank my middle school years for my love of hitting the gym, being bullied about being a tiny little shit when all my friends had already hit puberty and were shooting up like trees. I begged my uncle to allow me to use his workout bench in his garage for the whole summer between eighth and ninth grade. A month before high school started, I finally hit a growth spurt. It seemed like I sprouted four inches overnight…and then didn’t stop until I hit six foot five and towered over everyone else.
I lift a brow. “Elaborate for me.”
She huffs. “You know exactly what I mean. All buff and hot and whatnot.”
That same brow inches higher.
Hot? That’s a new one from her.
Over the years, she’s called me cute or handsome, even dropped beautiful a few times, whatever the fuck that means for a dude. But hot?
That word has never left her lips regarding me.
I…think I like it.
I lift my lips into a smirk. “You think I’m hot, Caroline?”
Another glare. “You’re something…like annoying, for one thing. You’re totally ruining my vampire-fest right now, and you’re a tool for taking my phone, which I’d like back now.”
She holds her palm out again, and when I don’t hand over her cell, she lunges for me.
I sidestep her easily.
She tosses her head back with a groan, her hands falling to her hips, where I can see her fingers digging into her flesh with frustration. I’m pushing all her buttons tonight, but I don’t care. I want to know what she’s doing on a dating app. The Caroline I’ve known for years has always lamented the lack of finding a real connection with someone. That’s not something you usually get on some dating app, especially one like this.
“Come on, Coop.”
“Don’t you come on me. Stop trying to change the subject. What the hell are you doing on Dud or Stud? This app is like a breeding ground for douchebags.”
“Um, trying to find a stud, obviously.”
“Because I’m going to start dating.”
“Because it’s what people do.”
She grits her bright white teeth. “Cooper…”
I raise my hands. “Just saying it’s a little out of left field for you. You’ve been content living that…what’s that saying you’re always spouting off? ‘Free and single, just don’t make me mingle’?”
“Yeah, well, things change.”
Sure. But not this. This hasn’t ever changed.
She’s been in about as many relationships as I have, which isn’t saying much. She’s always been indifferent to dating. Why is she going after it so hard now?
There’s something she’s not saying.
When she sees I’m not going to let her get away with a half-assed answer, she throws her hands in the air, frustrated.
“Because I’m lonely!”
There’s a commotion from the apartment next door, and I have no doubt the old, nosy broad living there has her ear pressed up against our wall again.
That’s the only problem with where we live. We’re in the heart of the city, and there are a lot of older folks here whose rich kids have set them up in this hot locale because it’s within walking distance of everything you could ever want. Which, in turn, means a lot of gossip floats around here because everyone is bored with their lives.
Due to the fact that Caroline yelled it louder than when she asked for the Wi-Fi password, I’m sure half the apartment building will have heard about how lonely she is by nine AM.
Fucking mailbox gossips.
“I’m lonely, okay? Are you happy?”
Not by a long shot.
Not when she stands there wringing her hands together, her nerves showing clear as day.
Not with her bottom lip tucked between her teeth.
And not when her blue eyes are turning sadder by the second.
An upset Caroline is my least favorite version of her.
Hell, I’d take an angry version of her over this.
This one makes me feel all protective…and something else I can’t quite put my finger on, but I know I don’t like it.
“Why are you lonely?” I point to myself, trying to lighten the mood and ignore whatever is eating at me. “You have me—is that not enough?”
“You’re you, Cooper.” She lifts her eyes skyward, a grin pulling at her lips. Then it’s gone. “I’m lonely in different ways.”
It hits me all at once.
I know exactly what Caroline’s after.
“Sex,” I provide helpfully, nodding.
Her cheeks redden, and I smash my lips together, trying not to laugh at her reaction.
Caroline’s always been shy, but she’s especially timid when it comes to discussing anything sexual. I remember the first time we watched a movie with a sex scene in it together, though I use “watched” loosely because she kept her eyes closed the entire time.
She still watches them that way.
I’ve teased her about it—mercilessly, I might add—over the years, just to get a rise out of her. At the moment, though, I can see she’s feeling vulnerable, and it’s not the time.
She lifts her shoulders.
I cross my arms over my chest. “What does that mean? That shoulder shrug of yours.”
“It’s typically the universal sign for I don’t know.”
“How do you not know if you’re referring to sex?”
She’s my best friend and I know her better than anyone. If she really didn’t want to talk about this, she’d be running for her room, not standing here looking at me with those eyes that say Help me.
And I’m just that kind to help her out.
“Are you just trying to get your rocks off, or are you wanting to find a boyfriend or whatever they’re called these days?” Another blush. “Because if it’s the latter, dating apps are not where you want to go searching. Ninety-five percent of those guys are just looking to hump and dump.”
She scrunches her nose. “That’s an awful saying.”
I shrug. “But a true one.”
“Is that what you call what you do? Humping and dumping?”
I wince. When it comes out of her sweet mouth, it sounds extra awful.
But, yeah, I’m guilty of it. In fact, it’s how I operate. One-night stands, going back for seconds here and there. Aside from the one girlfriend I had in high school, and unless you count the two long-term—if carrying on for less than three months is long term—bed buddies I’ve had, the no-strings thing has always been my thing.
I’m not one of those guys who’s trying to do everything in his power to not be tied down. I just haven’t found someone who’s worth it, and I’m not into false hope.
Until I’m ready to give someone my all, what’s the point of playing house?
“We’re not talking about me.”
“Clearly, Mr. Avoid the Subject.”
“We’re talking about you,” I continue, ignoring her all-too-accurate accusation. “Dating or fucking?”
“I am not answering that.”
“Ah, so rocks off it is.”
“Stop.” The color on her cheeks deepens.
“I can help, you know.”
Her brows shoot up. “With what?”
“The sex thing.”
She runs her tongue over her bottom lip. “Are you saying you want to…have sex? With…me?”
She freezes, and I don’t dare even blink.
All the air in the room is sucked out at her question.
Time stands completely still.
Then, it cracks.
Or we do.
We double over in laughter.
I already made the mistake of trying to take things to the next level with Caroline when I was a horny teen who was basically into anyone with a great rack—something my best friend definitely has, not that I’ve officially noticed or anything.
Either way, my experiment failed. Epically.
It solidified that friends are all we’re meant to be. Any time I get an inkling of an idea that we’re meant to be together in some crazy stars-aligned way, I think of that failed kiss.
She wipes under her eyes, brushing away the tears that always form when she laughs too hard.
“Oh wow. I haven’t laughed that hard in way too long. I needed that.” She barks out another laugh. “Can you even imagine? Taking a romp in the sheets with you? Pass. Hard pass.”
I try not to take her words too harshly but, fuck, a man has his pride, and she just landed a direct hit to mine.
She sounds disgusted by the idea of us together, and while I can manage rejection just fine—not that it happens often—I wasn’t expecting that reaction.
Sure, I get it…to an extent. It’s one thing to strip bare with someone you hardly know, but it’s a whole different story to do it in front of someone who sometimes knows you better than you know yourself. It makes it ten times more personal.
I’m sure that’s what she’s referring to, but it’s damn hard to not take offense at her words.
I’m not lusting after her or anything, but I’m also not completely immune to…well, her.
Caroline Reed is hot, and if she were anyone other than my best friend, I’d have tried to woo her into my bed long ago.
I’d be a bald-faced liar if I said I never thought of her in ways that aren’t…appropriate.
I don’t think the idea of us together sounds that bad.
I let my mind wander for a split second, conjuring up those images I keep locked tightly away and have only indulged in a few times over the years.
Us. Naked. In bed together.
Caroline’s blonde hair wrapped around my fist with her on her knees.
My face between her thighs.
Wait—no! Stop it, you dumbfuck. This is Caroline you’re thinking about. You’re best friends. You do not cross that line, no matter what. Tuck that shit away and don’t you dare let on that your dick is starting to react.
I give myself a mental shake, pushing it aside, praying my brain won’t decide to replay that later when I’m attempting to fall asleep.
“It’s nice to know your mind is firmly in the gutter tonight, but I meant more like helping you find some suitors. Come out with me tomorrow.”
I already know what her response is going to be—a solid no—but it’s a million times better than her idea of using this stupid app.
I navigate to her apps folder and promptly uninstall the damn thing before that sicko sends another nasty picture of his dick.
“With you? On a Friday? In…public?”
Okay, that’s the second time tonight she’s sounded repulsed by me. Now I’m really starting to take it personally.
I peel my eyes from her phone, narrowing them at her. “Don’t say that like you think I’m disgusting.”
“You’re not. Your friends are.”
Mostly true. They kind of are dicks. And gross. Especially when they get more than two beers in them, which is basically every Friday because those nerds get out of the house less than Caroline does, and that’s saying something.
Why the fuck do I hang out with them again?
Team building, as my boss likes to call it.
“What if I promise it’s just the two of us?”
I can totally ditch them…I hope.
She twists her lips. “I don’t know, Coop. I haven’t been out in a long time.”
“All the more reason to go.” I shake her phone in my hand. “You want to get laid? Let’s find you someone.”
Besides, I could use a few hours away from my computer, as well as a pair of legs wrapped around my waist. It’s been far too long since I’ve gotten laid myself.
“That’s what I was trying to do before you ruined it.”
“Let’s do it the old-fashioned way—by talking to someone.”
With a shaking hand, she tucks an errant strand of hair behind her ear.
It’s her tell. She’s nervous because she’s not good at the talking thing…and because she’s considering my offer.
“Come on, Care. What do you have to lose?” I pull my lips up on one side. “Besides your virginity?”
“I am not a virgin!”
“Are you sure your hymen hasn’t grown back?”
“Okay, that is not how it works and you know it. But, if that’s your way of implying it’s been way too long since I’ve gotten laid, you’re right.”
“Good. Then we agree. You’re coming with me tomorrow.” She opens her mouth to argue, but I point a finger, silencing her. “You’re going.” I toss her phone back to her. “And that’s final.”
“Don’t boss me around like you used to do in high school.”
“You love it when I boss you around.”
She grumbles something, but I don’t catch it. I’m already back down the hall, almost to my bedroom. If I’m going to spend the night out with Caroline trying to teach her how to get some, I need to get ahead on work now because I will need a lot of drinks to get through it, which means I’ll do fuck-all on Saturday.
“If I go—and that’s a big if—you’re buying drinks! And I am not doing karaoke!”